Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review: Understanding the Faith Study Bible

Christianity Today provides a new and original study Bible with "Understanding the Faith," at least in concept, anyway. This study Bible includes quotes from various Christian leaders, historic insights, everyday faith lessons, explanations of essential doctrines, and even sections that summarize different views on non-essential doctrines. It's this last group of inserts that disappointed me. The comparison bits are few in number and completely skip over the gifts of the spirit. Another side note does address the differing views, but only very briefly and without any conviction. I also notice one bit that quoted from a teacher I consider unreliable, Rick Warren. The rest of the sections are interesting and worthwhile, although the book introductions are short and to the point. The Bible's layout is easy enough on the eyes and the hardcover book has a nice feel. Overall, this is a great Bible for reminders of essentials of the faith, but it is not an extensive study Bible.

*Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for my honest review.

Nonfiction Review: Delighting in God by A.W. Tozer

You have to admire A.W. Tozer for his articulate praise and wonder of God. In "Delighting in God," we have a beautiful love letter to God as creator, judge, and giver of mercy. Tozer recognizes there is a lack of respect and response in the modern church and writes to clarify what we can know about God and how that should dictate our relationship with Him. It is a much more philosophical book than it is theological, as it does lack Scripture references. I also found Tozer's encouragement toward a real experience of God confusing, given all the Charismatic and non-Charismatic factions existent today. Still, any Christian should appreciate Tozer's premise that "it is simply not enough to know about God. We must know God in increasing levels of intimacy that lift us above all reason and into adoration and praise and worship." "Delighting in God" is an easy, but deep read, and it is a great starting point for exploring where you are at in your faith and where you should be. Personally, I found it a great intro as I move on to my next book about worship by John MacArthur.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Review: The Christmas Story in 40 Days

"The Christmas Story in 40 Days" by Chris Loehmer Kincaid is one of those devotional books written for people who like positive, practical, every-day applications. I did not personally care for the two page devotions, which feature a selection of Scripture followed by a short "explanation" (if you can call it that) and space for notes. Kincaid's "insights" do not spend much time looking at the actual verses, but rather stretch passages to mean something for modern day Christians. And as positive or possibly true some of those insights might be, they do seem like quite a stretch from the source material.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Christian Fiction Review: Until the Dawn by Elizabeth Camden

"Until the Dawn" was my first Elizabeth Camden novel, and I do believe I have a new favorite author. Camden does a lovely job of developing a story and a relationship without any of that nonsense immediate attraction. Heroine Sophie and love interest Quentin clash at first in both religion and outlook. As Sophie's optimism and strong faith begin to bring Quentin out of his depression, Sophie also looks back at past relationships and learns that marriage is a partnership. The leading lady has had her share of tragedy, and Camden references a time when Sophie spent a week crying her heart out and years looking for counseling from her pastor. But we mostly see the outgoing, positive side of Sophie who sets a great example in her composed answer to conflict. It was very interesting to read how various events and conversations led Quentin out of his atheistic point of view. Both Sophie and Quentin have a strong regard for science, but Sophie also believes in something more, as evidenced by the "blessed" land Quentin's family owns. Here is where the actual plot comes into play. Quentin's grandfather wants to tear down the historic estate Sophie has grown fond of as a sort of grounds cook and care taker. The intertwining relationships feel very natural and well-built. The entire book is written and planned out well. I could not put it down.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Nonfiction Review: What We Believe by R.C. Sproul

R.C. Sproul divides the Apostles' Creed into sections to be considered throughout his book "What We Believe." Sproul's Calvinism leanings are hinted at and he has a tendency to go off topic, but readers will find gems of information - and occasional semantics - here, in addition to confirmations of what most Christians will hopefully already know and believe.

Sproul addresses a general lack of biblical content in modern Christianity. Faith and the mind can work together, he writes - although how science and faith are compatible is never full considered. We do get some useful information on the reliability of the Bible, with a focus on eyewitness declarations. Sproul also devotes chapters to the Trinity, as well as creation and miracles.

*Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Christian Nonfiction Review: After Acts

I began "After Acts" with anticipation. The content disappointed at first, focusing more on the books the apostles (plus Mary and Paul) wrote, but eventually I grew used to author Bryan Litfin's organization and found new bits of information confirming the authenticity of the Bible that I have not found in the many other books I have read on the defense of the Gospel. As a side note, Liftin is more critical of books like 1 & 2 Peter, but as a conservative Christian sides with the Biblical canon. Since he is writing about the authors, not the creation of the canon, it makes sense that he does not discuss the divine authorship or guidance of the Bible, but he does hint at it. In addition to recapping what the Bible has to say, "After Acts" gives an overview of gnostic and early church myths and texts and attempts to separate fact from truth, concluding with a "report card" that grades each factor discussed. Liftin keeps things concise, so readers may not find as much information as they'd like, but the book is still a fascinating read.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review. 

Review: Learning to See Creatively by Bryan Peterson

Bryan Peterson provides an easy read with plenty of helpful tips in "Learning to See Creatively." Although the technical chapters on lens choice and Photoshop could use more detail, I greatly appreciated Peterson's layout and organization. Peterson gives short introductions and then uses multiple example photos - each with one poorly-executed picture and one well-executed picture - with detailed descriptions.

I was not necessarily impressed with all of the photos (especially the front cover image), but they were all good examples for their sections, I did see a few that caught my attention, and Peterson's photo class and photo excursion stories were interesting. Tips cover everything from texture to lighting. Peterson's opinions on rearranging subjects were hard to justify. Although I understand his reasoning, coming from a Journalism background I felt his discussion on this topic needed more clarification between artistic photos and real-life photos. Overall, Peterson's instructions and exercises are great material for photographers of any experience level.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Review: On This Foundation by Lynn Austin

Having previously read and generally disliked the first of Lynn Austin's "Restoration Chronicles," I was surprised by how much I thoroughly enjoyed the third installment, "On This Foundation." Here we have various lives, including the Bible's Nehemiah, beautifully intertwined into a story of love, obedience, hope and redemption.

Nehemiah travels to Jerusalem to rebuild the city walls. In order to do so, he must unite the people and face turmoil stirred up by nearby leaders. That means calling for obedience to God, a purification of the city and its practices. When he calls for the rich men of the community to cancel debts and free bondservants, Nava hopes that will pave the way for her marriage to Dan. Her master, Malkijah, is courting Chava, who still mourns the loss of her previously betrothed love. Chava's journey past her grief mirrors Nava's journey out of bitterness. Both deal with how a loving God could allow pain into their lives.

There are a few character and story traits I did not care for. Nehemiah is portrayed as what modern readers will see as sexist. The beginning of the book could have been scratched in favor of getting right into the action. Austin introduces a new point of view 87 pages in that she proceeds to barely use. I'm not sure what to make of the historical accuracy of the book, but I do know Austin has studied in and visit Jerusalem, and here she provides a fabulous book that I could not put down, so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Bob Welch's "52 Little Lessons from A Christmas Carol"

Quaint. Easy to read. Full of small insights. Bob Welch's "52 Little Lessons from A Christmas Carol" recaps the Charles Dickens classic through a detailed look at Ebenezer Scrooge, the three ghosts, and various other characters from the story. Welch hopes that his short words of wisdom will, like "Christmas Carol," haunt us pleasantly. His lessons vary from how to deal with grief (like Bob Cratchit) to how to sort out fear and how to live a redeemed life. Our admonitions are nothing particularly unique, but Welch adds extra historical and Scriptural information to make his writing interesting and impacting. I especially appreciated his look at Charles Dickens' Christianity and how it shows up in "Christmas Carol." Ultimately, Welch gives us a sort of devotional book in which the lessons overlap and support each other to encourage readers to act, not just speak, in love.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Fiction Review: Luther and Katharina by Jody Hedlund

Jody Hedlund gives us an interesting historical romance in "Luther and Katharina." I'm not sure if it's the solid historical background that weakens her telling (the idea did not bother me), or if it's her own writing style. Hedlund certainly did a great job of incorporating the political and religious wars of the time. But her story arc did not engage me. I did not become interested in the characters until after they became married in the last hundred pages of the book. There was very little theological content. And the plot had too many ups and downs - i.e. now she's kidnapped, now she's not. Now she's in danger again, now she's saved. Now they hate each other, now they don't. The one character development that I did like was the pride of Katharina, but even that seemed drawn out, and yet undeveloped. Hedlund's writing, itself, is fine. I had no trouble finishing the book, and I am certain there are many who will love the story. But I expected more.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Fiction Review: Vendetta by Lisa Harris

The suspense does not let up, even in the quieter moments of the latest from Lisa Harris. "Vendetta" gives readers solid character development and a mystery that reveals itself at a consistent and edge-of-your-seat pace. The style may remind some readers of CSI and other crime-solving television shows.

Ten years after her sister goes missing, Nikki Boyd works for the Tennessee Missing Persons Task Force. She has never given up hope of finding out the entire truth behind her sister's disappearance, which may develop further when the abductor's signature shows up at the scene of another missing girl's case. As both Nikki and friend, Tyler, struggle with allowing God into their painful pasts and possible futures, various clues lead them closer to a surprising conclusion.

The ending does leave a very large opening for future books in the series. Readers will definitely anticipate the next installment.

*Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for my honest review.

Nonfiction Review: Defying Normal by Skip Heitzig and Jeff Kinley

"Defying Normal: Soaring Above the Status Quo" looks at the life of Daniel as inspiration for prayer and dependence upon God. The authors use basic storytelling and ample Scriptural support (sometimes too much New Testament for a book that's supposed to look at things from Daniel's Old Testament perspective), and they even surprise every so often with a fascinating fact or two. The applications, however, are fairly obvious from a basic read of Daniel. This is a book that goes off the pages of the Bible for extended, real-life applications.

We learn about self-control through Daniel's experience under foreign indoctrination, confusion and isolation. As Nebuchadnezzar's wise men were humbled by failure, humanity will fail its defiance of God and disregard for God's knowledge. We learn to live in balance between integrity and interaction with the world. As Daniel had courage and relied of God in prayer, so we must come to God with adoration, confession, petition and motivation, replacing anxiety with hope.

"Defying Normal" encourages its readers to influence the world by reaching up to God, reaching in to self and community, and reaching out to the lost. It's a great motivational book, but not an original one.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Review: NIV Zondervan Study Bible

Occasional colored photos. Pleasant layout with clear, green headlines. The usual study notes. Introductions that include author, historical and theological notes. And some index articles that go over basic doctrines and timelines - meant more for reference or for beginners than for new discoveries. The NIV Zondervan Study Bible is your typical Bible. It's heavy in size, so not ideal for on-the-go, but perfect for in-depth study. I do not recommend it, however, if you already have a good study Bible.

*Disclaimer: I received this Bible in exchange for my honest review.

Fiction Review: An Endless Christmas by Cynthia Ruchti

"An Endless Christmas" by Cynthia Ruchti is a heart-warming story about one family's Christmas and the woman invited for a surprise proposal (as well as what happens after she says no). There were a few small matters that bugged me throughout the short novella. There was not much of a plot, the many family names were difficult to keep track of, and more than a few of Ruchti's short descriptions and references made absolutely no sense. Also - a pet peeve of mine - the book is told from one person's point of view until, about 60 pages in, Ruchti switches to another character's viewpoint, which she then proceeds to hardly use at all throughout the book - inconsistent style and story telling that might have worked better if Ruchti had begun each chapter with a short bit written from this other character's view. That said, Katie, our leading lady, deals with some real insecurities and bad family history that many readers will relate to. The main characters are interesting, and the family's holiday traditions quaint. As an only child with a small family, the picture painted here appealed to me as what a perfect family Christmas looks like. I highly recommend this book for anyone looking to cozy up in front of the fire and enjoy some seasons greetings.

*Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review: The Imposter

I'm still not sure which imposter is "The Imposter" in Suzanne Woods Fisher's latest Amish novel, the first in a series titled "The Bishop's Family." I'm not really sure who the Bishop of the series is either. This first book's back cover description does not really give an accurate picture of what readers can expect, either. Fisher tells the story from multiple points of view: The back cover's Katrina, who struggles with a lost love. Teacher Birdy's slight crush on Katrina's father. The gambling problems of Katrina's brother, Jesse. And conflicts within the church led by Katrina's father, David. Although the book is slow moving with a very simple writing style, a huge revelation about half way through raises the stakes, and the characters' problems suddenly get real. No one gets married, but the story has a surprisingly satisfying conclusion, and Fisher does a wonderful job of creating relatable and thought-provoking, yet simple situations. "The Imposter" is full of hidden gems.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Christian Nonfiction Review: Redeming Pleasure by Jeremy Jernigan

Most Christian conservatives will not like Jeremy Jernigan's "Redeeming Pleasure" - not so much because of the overall concept (which is very agreeable), but because of the often unorthodox details.

So... FIRST the overall concept that the majority of Christians will understand: Pleasure is not evil. God created pleasure to be enjoyed. But that also means He created limits and boundaries to allow for the best of pleasure. Jernigan covers everything from sex, alcohol and drugs to parenting, community and entertainment.

SECOND the unorthodox details, which I tend to personally disagree with: Jernigan is a Pacificst. His chapter on community vs. competition went off on a tangent against guns here, and most of the content in said chapter seemed off-topic. It also made unrealistic comparisons between a murderer and a crazed family member. Jernigan believes in annihilation for the unsaved at judgment. He also implies that Jesus can save without the person in question actually fully accepting Him. Jernigan's view on homosexuality comes across as accepting and wishy-washy at best - stating that God can bless and accommodate same-sex relationships. Sin, as presented in "Redeeming Pleasure," is difficult to define and possibly relativistic. We all know that the Old Testament law no longer binds us as believers, but Jernigan seems to take this a step further and imply that the moral laws of the Old Testament are not applicable to today. Jernigan's definition of "right" as what God designed for the most pleasure is narrow and incomplete. His argument that morality in entertainment is fairly relativistic makes sense, but also seems incomplete. After all, sex and violence on screen may not affect me, but that does not make it right. I mean, even porn can be seen as entertainment - and this same author just wrote about the harms of emotional porn! Of course, I could be misunderstanding the author on many of these issues, but that is exactly my point - that Jernigan is not always clear and complete in his arguments. The prevailing feel I got from the book was that you can abuse pleasure and God will still accommodate you, or you can do pleasure the way God created it to be and live your happiest life. And there are several smaller details (i.e. the author's Arminian stance) that I took issue with in which Jernigan's arguments obviously - at least to me - had major problems.

I'll conclude by noting that Jernigan does use multiple stories, analogies and Scripture selections (albeit I would say not always rightly used) to support his points. His writing style and overall narrative are very enjoyable. And, hey, we all need to read what the other side has to say every so often, so even those who disagree with the details will find something worth reading here. And I did actually take on thing away - that it's okay to love a person for what they give you - to love God for what He gives you, because we were created to enjoy God and His creations.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Fiction Review: The Lost Heiress by Roseanna M. White

"The Lost Heiress" is a historical romance and mystery about Brook Eden and her newly discovered family. When Brook discovers her mother's hidden gems, her life is suddenly in danger. As a new heiress, the dangerous Lord Pratt appears to be after her hand in marriage for money reasons, but things are not what they seem.

Roseanna White creates a thrilling story with wonderful, engaging characters who rely strongly on their faith as they face troubles. The book is long, but builds up to its conclusion well. The many characters and their connections are confusing. Also, while a good mystery should reveal small clues throughout, it should not be to the confusion of the reader, and White sometimes waits too long to reveal important details. She also skips over months at a time, which can be somewhat bothersome to certain readers. However, the story and its conclusion are most definitely worth a full read. The climax will have readers on the edge of their seats, and the overall plot will keep the pages turning through the night.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Review: Capture the Moment by Sarah Wilkerson

In "Capture the Moment," CEO of Clickin Moms Sarah Wilkerson has compiled a a great collection of photos taken by women, many of which are taken of kids by their moms. You don't have to be a mom to enjoy the photos and photography tips presented here. However, the tips are mainly meant to get you thinking with a photographer's eye for content and light. There are very few technical tips given, and the short dictionary at the back of the book is pretty basic stuff. So, the book is mainly for beginners. And yet pretty much all of the photo examples were taken with camera bodies that cost well over $1000 (imagine how expensive the lenses are). Since I can only afford my current Canon T2i Rebel, which takes terrible photos when a high ISO is used, I found it disappointing that more than half of these photos were taken at ISOs over 1600. How do these professional photographers get their subjects to turn out so in focus with such low f-stops? How do they manage to take photos at high ISOs with so little grain in the result? How can I take photos just a high in quality without expensive equipment and editing programs?

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Nonfiction Review: Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor

In Glenn T. Stanton's "Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor" I was glad to finally find a book with some solid questions and answers for Christians facing moral dilemmas. Stanton's points on gay marriage and politics could use some expansion, but his chapters on the role of the church and the role LGBT people can play in the church were enlightening. Stanton also takes time to address just what LGBT means. He makes it very clear that LGBT is not a cookie-cutter community and that those who associate themselves with that community are human beings with emotions and needs who cannot just be told to stop doing what they're doing. I enjoyed Stanton's examples of real-life friendships between people with polar opposite opinions. I could read an entire book of testimonies alone. Of course, Stanton takes the traditional, conservative stance, but he does so with a lot more practical sense than a lot of the books I have read on this topic. There are still a few points I disagree with or do not have a solid grasp of, but this book was a great step toward a more solid stance of my own.

*I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Nonfiction Review: Exploring Christian Theology Volume Two

Volumes One and Three of "Exploring Christian Theology" offer a bit for both beginners and more advanced readers. As one who knows little about Revelation, I found Nathan D. Holsteen and Michael J. Svigel's sections on the End Times interesting. In Volume Two, the editors cover "Creation, Fall, And Salvation," at least that's what the title says. In reality, the book covers mostly the effects of the Fall and the details of Salvation, with some basic info on Calvinism and Arminianism.

The book's approach is unique because it combines technical theology with history, and history with practical application. I was disappointed in this volume, however, because it spent no time on the how of Creation - young earth versus new earth and so on. I also had trouble understanding some of the excerpts from classical theologians and wished they had been paired up with the sections on church history for a better overall picture.

To summarize, Volume Two has some great content, but it's fairly obvious content that sets in stone what most readers will already know.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Fiction Romance Review: Hope Harbor by Irene Hannon

I requested Irene Hannon's "Hope Harbor" because I had read a few of her suspense novels and was curious if her romance would be as original. I found "Hope Harbor" to be well written and full of character development, but ultimately just another romance novel.

Each of the main characters have lost spouses and hide secrets while blaming themselves for their pasts. But the one revelation that could actually be surprising - that the leading man looks a lot like the estranged son of the town recluse - is thrown aside without explanation. Also, once again Hannon introduces a new character point of view at the tale end of the story for one or two short chapters, which is a pet peeve annoyance of mine and really a big no no in the writing world.

So, if you're in the mood for a slow, but endearing romance without much originality in its telling - nothing much happens for a climax, either - or if you enjoy Hannon's previous writing, then this is a good read. But for most, there are better options.

*Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Nonfiction Review: Messy Grace by Caleb Kaltenbach

Caleb Kaltenbach "shares his heart" in "Messy Grace." He writes of his experience becoming a Christian after growing up with two moms and a homosexual father. And his story is incredible. But what should really draw the reader in is Caleb's call to both grace and truth.

Caleb believes in the traditional, Biblical perspective on marriage, and he uses strong, Scriptural evidence in his presentation. He also knows that no sin and no person is black and white. His insights into the lives of "others" are challenging and thought-provoking. He gives solutions to the gay Christian dilemma (celibacy, heterosexual marriage), but doesn't expect one size to fit all, and instead focuses on where we place our identity - in Christ or in the things of this world. He does lightly touch on the issues of gay marriage and Christian rights, but does not go into great detail on anything political... or all that practical for that matter.

I know he wanted to encourage Christians to love instead of hate, but I think the everyday issues Christians face are extremely relevant to the conversation on just how we can love our neighbors. I would like to see another book from Caleb that focuses more on how the tension plays out - "Messy Grace" was more about pointing out the tension, itself.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Nonfiction Review: The Accidental Feminist by Courtney Reissig

Courtney Reissig started life out as what she considered a feminist, but her view point changed when she came to a biblical understanding of men and women. As explained in "The Accidental Feminist,"  that complementarian view sees men and women as equal, but not the same, and compares the role of male leadership in the church to the Israelite tribe specifically selected for the purpose of priesthood.

After Reissig begins with her own story, she gets off to a rough start with a chapter that could use better organization. But then she gets down to business and provides some very good, thought-provoking thoughts. Like Eve, humans tend to question what God has said. God has a purpose for men and women. Women are to be life-givers in hospitality and love. They can serve within the church, leading Bible studies and younger women. Reissig gives multiple examples of what this looks like for both the single and married woman, as well as what godly submission in a godly marriage looks like. She also looks at feminism throughout history to show how it has affected Christian women. Women can work in the home or in the work place. They should not make either of these ultimate, but rather focus on God as ultimate.

The book does get a little preachy at times. As a person who does not have a heart for service, I found the hospitality examples irrelevant and exhausting to just think about. But the one thing that really disappointed me was that Reissig did not address the gay/lesbian issue. There were certain things she covered, like modesty and maintaining a personality while still having a "quiet" spirit, but I still left feeling like there was more practical issues and applications that needed to be addressed. All in all, though, "The Accidental Feminist" is an easy, but thought-provoking read with several great points.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Nonfiction Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Grace of God

"The Good, the Bad, and the Grace of God" consists of back and forth chapters written by Duck Dynasty stars Jep and Jessica Robertson. The chapters basically tell each author's life story. This means extra, unnecessary details. I would have preferred a more focused story revolving around the redemptive moments in their lives.

Jep and Jessica deal with everything from body image to marital problems to sexual temptation to drugs and abuse. These portions of their stories are touching and make the read worthwhile. There are a few holes in the story, though. Jep gives his background as an excuse for his sins, but I'm sure there has to be more to it than that.

Aided by Susy Flory, their writing style is very laid back (i.e. This happened. Then this happened. Oh and I remember this happened too.) and conversational (sometimes to the book's detriment, but mostly making for an easy read).

 I found out after I requested this book that the Robertsons believe baptism equals salvation, which I disagree with. But there were no real doctrinal concerns or issues present in the book, itself, although they did overemphasize baptism.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Nonfiction Review: Passing Through by Jeremy Walker

It will be easy for many a reader to dislike what Jeremy Walker has to say in "Passing Through." I'm included in that. Walker does not hesitate in calling Christians to live a Christian life under the headship of Christ, in the world but not of the world. That does not come easy to me because I'm not a big talker. The written word is more my thing, and I'm no missionary. But the topic appealed to me because Walker talks from the perspective that we are pilgrims. He uses a great deal of Scripture to support his points, and encourages readers to fight the Devil, pursue the Great Commission, and so on. I appreciated his extensive use of Scripture and his thought-provoking points, but found that Walker tended to repeat himself and that many of his points overlapped. Although there were certain chapters that interested me more than others, such as the chapter on respecting authorities, the book really needed more specific examples: How does Satan appear in our lives? Where do we draw a line? How do we confront the issues of our modern culture?

*Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Nonfiction Review: Mormonism 101

"Mormonism 101" presents a detailed, document-supported record of Mormon history and belief. Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson contrast common Mormon perceptions and beliefs with Christian Old and New Testament Scriptures, quoting most from the Mormon-approved King James Version. Coming from a Christian perspective, the authors do aim to point out faults and inconsistencies in the Church of Latter Day Saints. However, they write with respect and mostly use actual Mormon sources for their proofs. The book is long and comes in small print, organized by topic (rituals, salvation, pretty much everything), but is very much so worth a read.

*I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Christian Fiction Review: Dead Dog Like Me

Five stars for a wonderful and engaging story of redemption. Two stars for some big "no-no's" in style and more. "Dead Dog Like Me" by Max Davis is nothing like its back cover description. When mega-church pastor Nick tries to commit suicide, his trip back in time as Mephibosheth in the Bible lasts only two or three chapters in the book - and they're short, easy-to-read chapters. The rest of the book is about Nick's struggles with his inner demons over his bad relationship with his wife and his son's suicide. The story and characters themselves are interesting and compelling. Still, Davis has several small typos in his writing, his narrative style is plain, some of the situations and the time they take are unrealistic, and Davis uses parentheses and foreign languages in some odd style choices. The real unforgivable sin for Davis as a writer, however, is that more than halfway into the book he switches from first person point of view (as Nick) to third person point of view (as Nick's wife, Abbi). And the third person doesn't last long or take much space in the book, either. Worst of all, in one section he changes in the same section from third person as Abbi to third person as Nick! This would be a really fabulous book if Max Davis could just decide on one style of writing and change the Mephibosheth episodes to dreams or looks at the Bible rather than time travel.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Nonfiction Review: What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality

Kevin DeYoung gives a historical and Biblical view on homosexuality in his short, quick and easy read, "What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?" DeYoung addresses popular liberal arguments and controversial Bible passages from a strong, reasoned conservative position. His insights on God's attributes (love vs. judgment) and explanations of misunderstood histories are particularly interesting. However, DeYoung's aim is to address what the Christian perspective should be, so his book does miss a few opportunities to defend his case. A discussion of whether a homosexual can be a Christian would have fit well. And I would have liked to have read more about homosexual parenting (DeYoung implies that marriage is solely for procreation - which makes either a misunderstood or faulty argument), as well as responses to liberal arguments that compare straight to homosexual relationships (i.e. What is the difference between desire and companionship?).

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Nonfiction Review: Redeeming Philosophy

"Redeeming Philosophy: A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions" is basically a systematic theology for Philosophy. Unfortunately, there is nothing basic about this book. Although there are a few small insights about the Trinity and non-Christian worldviews, the author gets caught up in the complicated details of "perspectivalism," "the one and the many," triads (I make it a point to not use a triad here), and giving names to the obvious. By the time the topic actually becomes interesting, chapters are shortened and explanations become confusing. It takes a lot of concentration and patience to read this book.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Fiction Review: Empire's End by Jerry B. Jenkins

Jerry B. Jenkins' "Empire's End" deserves three stars just for being slightly more readable (and less painful) than previous Jenkins efforts on fictionalizing the Bible. His version of Saul/Paul's story maintains interest, but feels more like the story of any other early Christian. It just doesn't feel like the Paul of the Bible - this Paul keeps a journal and has a romance. Furthermore, Jenkins misses several opportunities to delve deep into emotions, motivations and history. His descriptions are plain, and because he quotes directly from the Bible, characters' speech habits are inconsistent. When Paul is in the wilderness, Jenkins has God teaching Paul word for word from the New Testament, which strips the NT books of their historical context and style as authored by man (inspired by God). Paul repeats his conversion story a lot, and it becomes tiresome to read again and again. And Jenkins inserts a modern, relativistic sensibility into Paul's conversations. The ending is sudden and begs for a sequel. Again, this book is far better than past books by Jenkins, but the author has a long way to go to become a notable writer worth the reader's time.

*I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Romance Review: Love's Rescue by Christine Johnson

Christine Johnson creates enjoyable characters and strong character and plot development in the first of her "Keys of Promise" series, "Love's Rescue." The story involves ships in a tropical setting, it's a historical story, and the leading lady is named Elizabeth, so I couldn't help but think of Pirates of the Carribean as I read. Still, playing the score for those movies in my mind as I read only added to the excitement.

The secrets revealed are expected, but serve their purpose, and Johnson uses her Romeo and Juliet plot to deal with patience, painful sins, slavery and more. Starting the story with our characters already in love, however, left little room for Elizabeth's chemistry with Rourke, the ship Wrecker she loves whom her family has forbidden. The solution to their troubles is a bit obvious (why didn't it come sooner?). Also, Johnson uses a lot of confusing jargon in her first chapter.

The suspense is there, however, and the action starts immediately, from the first page. Once I started, I could not put the book down.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Review: John Shaw's Guide to Digital Nature Photography

John Shaw's Guide to Digital Nature Photography has a lot of information for very beginning photographers - details on aperture, ISO, etc - and a lot of information for advanced photographers - i.e. for those with a lot of money to spend or with big brains for mathematics. However, as someone who has a basic knowledge of how a DSLR camera works, I took very little away from this book. The small bits of advice on the digital part of photography were not very explanatory and would really need a book of their own. The remainder of the book was too advanced for me. I had a very difficult time following Shaw's advice. He uses a lot of jargon and his explanations would likely make more sense with video or in-person examples (which could have been an option in this day in age - there's a little thing known as a QR Code). I did manage to read the entirety of the book, but, again, I took very little away and left with more questions than answers. I did appreciate Shaw's detailed captions for his photos that gave all the camera settings. But the book's organization was not effective and, again, the book was difficult to understand. I would have liked to have seen more advice for those of us without a big budget.

*Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Romance Review: Once Upon A Summertime by Melody Carlson

Melody Carlson writes a book with relatable characters and an exciting setting for "Once Upon A Summertime." Anna's search for a job and subsequent work to keep the job makes sense within the context of the current U.S. economy. By chance, she becomes the housekeeping manager for a new hotel in New York City. A company policy forces her to play safe when she hits it off with another manager, who grew up in the same town as her. They spend a few days sight seeing together, and by the end of the book (a few weeks later) they're ready for marriage. Surely there are better solutions than this. It's a quick and easy read, thoroughly enjoyable, but without much depth or character development. And Anna does not even meet the leading man until 100 pages in. But "Summertime" makes a nice read for those looking for light fairy tale romance.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Reference Book Review: The A to Z Guide to Bible Signs & Symbols

I'm not entirely sure why Neil Wilson and Nancy Ryken Taylor chose certain "signs" or "symbols" to include in their reference book, "The A to Z Guide to Bible Signs & Symbols." But I'll admit, they picked up on some things I wouldn't normally think about as having a consistent presence throughout the Bible. The information presented in the book is very concise - there isn't much room to go into depth. However, I did find a few interesting facts as I browsed, and I greatly appreciated the use of relevant verses and book excerpts in each section (each sign or symbol gets two pages with colorful photos and small print). Topics range from colors and cities to numbers and food.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Nonfiction Review: Sex Matters by Jonathan Mckee

"Sex Matters" by Jonathan Mckee is a quick and easy read ... for teenagers. College students and adults will likely find Mckee's story examples and Biblical points basic and without much depth. The book's back cover poses it as a book meant to answer deep questions. In a sense, Mckee does that. However, the entire book is written to youth. You have to admire Mckee for setting out to give "no exceptions, no loop holes" answers and to present the Biblical definition and purpose of sex (i.e. that it is supposed to be enjoyed within marriage). While there were some interesting facts about diseases and studies on sex outside versus sex inside marriage, there was very little to take away from this short book. It may discuss issues relevant to high school students with sex on the mind, but it does not truly address any political issue surrounding sex or real-life, every-day dilemma regarding sex. And as one who has struggled with her self image but never had a boy friend (i.e. curious because of a desire for love and friendship missing in my life), I can say there is at least one youth demographic that Mckee completely skips over.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review

Romance Review: In Firefly Valley

While I did not enjoy Amanda Cabot's "In Firefly Valley" as much as I loved the first book in this series (Texas Crossroads), I found the character development fairly realistic. The romance follows Marisa, who has dealt with anger since her alcoholic father left her and her mother when she was a child. Now an adult newly hired to manage the small-town Rainbow Resort, she meets Blake. They have immediate chemistry, which usually gets on my nerves in a romance. However, as they spend time together. their relationship becomes more believable.

When Marisa finds out Blake writes novels about a man who drinks, she feels betrayed by the newly discovered secret. Given her background, Marisa's reaction is understandable. She worries Blake will be his character and become a drinker. But that Blake (spoiler alert) caves to her worries and decides to write a new series of books with a better role model bugs me. I would have rather seen him turn his character into a flawed human who finds redemption. Still, Marisa's own redemption and a nice side romance between characters Lauren and Drew made for a good read. Ultimately, I have to give Cabot credit for reading so well into her characters and creating very real, very deep situations for them to deal with.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Christian Nonfiction Review: The Bible in Pop Culture

"The Bible in Pop Culture" is the second book of its kind I've come across - the other being a devotions book on superheroes and such. The comparisons found in these books intrigue me because I have been thinking along the same lines in the world of Broadway theatre and Opera. Kevin Harvey gives plenty of comparisons and examples throughout his book, from music to movies. Some of his examples are not exactly what I would have picked, and his explanations do not always go past the light side. Also, Harvey uses a version of the Bible that I don't normally approve of (one of those interpretations that insists it's a translation). And Harvey alluded to Rick Warren and other figures in a positive light (if you haven't guessed, I believe such leaders are off base in their teachings). Still, "The Bible in Pop Culture" was a fairly enjoyable read. I especially liked Harvey's side bars, which included bits of humor and specific Bible verses found in specific pop culture items. Most of all, I truly appreciate Harvey's point that we cannot find perfection beyond the Bible, but that does not have to mean we cannot find meaning and truth in our entertainment.

*I received this book in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Suspense Fiction Review: Irene Hannon's Buried Secrets

Irene Hannon is a master suspense writer, but she has one interesting trait that could be construed as a flaw: She spends half her book telling the story from the villain's point of view. This provides an interesting character study, but in Buried Secrets it means following around a woman who does everything for a big promotion. It doesn't sound that interesting, and knowing the mystery takes away from suspense, but Hannon's perfect writing style is worth the continued read. In fact, this is the second book by Irene Hannon I have read, and although I get tired of the "coincidence rules the day" "immediate attraction" of the romance, Buried Secrets did an okay job of character development and chemistry. And, surprisingly, Hannon once again manages to up the suspense at the end of her novel with a life-or-death situation. Now, if only Hannon could learn to narrow down on her point of views. The two leads plus villain works well enough, the others are unnecessary.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Fiction Review: The Creole Princess

Beth White writes with incredible historical detail. Although she uses the occasional jargon, her style is thoroughly enjoyable. In The Creole Princess, the story jumps around quite a bit, requiring the reader to fill in the blanks in time passage. White also uses quite a few points of view, but her characters are solid. The lead male is much like The Scarlet Pimpernel, dashing and brave on the inside, more sensitive and illusive on the outside. This portion of the book series takes place during the American Revolution, with our female leads on the edge in their alliances. The romances are thin, but believable. I recommend reading White's end-of-book notes for some interesting historical tidbits on her research and incorporation of real-life historical figures. White's enjoyment of history shows in these notes and throughout the book. It's for that reason that her story succeeds as the perfect historical novel, reaching in to touch on deep themes of slavery and independence. The one downer is that the time hops make for a lack of emotional attachment and suspense.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Nonfiction Review: God of the Big Bang

Leslie Wickman has plenty of expertise. In fact, I found some of her notes on global warming and taking care of the earth interesting. But when it comes to her book, "God of the Big Bang," Wickman does not quite know where to focus. I found myself disappointed because the short time she spent on defending the Christian faith she only covered the typical points that can be found in greater detail elsewhere. The rest of the book she hopped from topic to topic that really didn't mesh with her theme: God and science. There was a possibility that her content could work if she would only connect the dots for the reader. It was a fairly quick and easy read, but unsatisfying and uninformative.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Christian Historical Fiction Review: The Trouble With Patience by Maggie Brendan

Maggie Brendan provides a predictable story with endearing characters in "The Trouble with Patience." The plot is one you can find in many n old-west romance novel, following a murder and stolen cattle, and it does not really start until halfway through the book. Brendan tells the story from multiple points of view, which do not always serve the story. One supporting character has great potential for deeper development, but only takes the lead in the point of view a few times. Other than that, the characters are fully, and slowly developed. Patience starts out on a rough not with lawman Jedediah, but quickly develops humility and before long falls in love with the man, although there are other men in her life who are friendly enough. The first half of the book is spent solely on character development, which not all readers will enjoy. But Brendan's writing style is enjoyable, and her characters are relatable. Jedediah has a guilty past, while Patience deals with a strain family relationship. It's nothing new, but it's enjoyable.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Christian Fiction Review: Dauntless by Dina L. Sleiman

Dina L. Sleiman basically provides a female version of Robin Hood in her charming historic romance, "Dauntless." Lady Merry Ellison continues to hide from King John with her band of children and teenagers. They steal only what they need to live in the forests, eventually becoming known as the local ghosts. But when Merry runs into her old lost flame, Timothy Grey, things change forever. Timothy has moved on with his life, seeking position and power, which will come even faster if he can capture the ghosts.

The story moves slowly, but once Timothy and Merry reunite, things become interesting. Sleiman's writing style is engaging and descriptive, and her characters (the story is told from four different points of view) have deep, interesting life issues to deal with. Merry deals with whether or not God would allows evil in the world. Timothy tries to balance justice with a god-honored king who rules unjustly.

Sleiman easily puts the religious themes in the context of the time without losing accuracy, and when her characters speak, they often use just enough old-fashioned English flair to make them believable. The author's Charismatic background (she attended Oral Roberts University) does come in to play maybe two short and hardly noticeable moments in the book, but they serve the plot of the book and will not make the orthodox conservative too uncomfortable.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Christian Nonfiction Review: Foundation by James L. Nicodem

I feel a bit fooled by James L. Nicodem. While his writing style is easy and enjoyable to read, and Nicodem includes plenty of stories and examples to keep his book interesting, the book is not really what its description promised. Only the first half of "Foundation" actually deals with the reliability of Scripture, and Nicodem merely covers the basic points that I have read hundreds of times before. Any skeptic would walk away still a skeptic from reading this book. The second half of the book is written for beginning Christians and reads like a pamphlet encouraging Christians to read their Bibles and to understand the salvation story presented in the Bible. Apparently, this book is a part of a series which probably covers even more pamphlet topics. Again, this is for beginners, and it does not deliver what it promises. Also, the small group discussion questions at the end of each chapter are typical and pointless, mostly finding their answers within the text rather than provoking any thought from the reader.

*Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for my honest review.

Christian Fiction Review: Rise of the Fallen by Chuck Black

Chuck Black's writing style is nothing special. The only things he every takes the time to describe in great detail are the guns involved. But his plain sense of telling a good story can capture the right reader, and Black stole my undivided attention with both his first book, "Cloak of the Light" and now the second book in the "Wars if the Realm" series, "Rise of the Fallen."

The second book follows some of the first book's events from the point of view of angel, Validus, but does not require reading the first book to understand (although it does help). Black goes back and forth between Validus' back story in Old Testament and New Testament times and his present day mission to protect the mysterious unbeliever Drew Carter, who can somehow see into the spiritual realm.

Some of Black's choices in depicting the angel's world were a bit strange to me. The angels seem far too human. But Black's chapter notes and bolded Scripture-inspired portions helped me on that account. And Black does a fabulous job of not only keeping his reader on the edge of her seat, but also describing one possible version of what it must have been like to see God create. Black ends with a major cliff-hanger. It will be interesting to see where he takes the third book. I am anxious for its release.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Nonfiction Review: Fallen by Annie Lobert

"Fallen" is an incredible autobiography by Annie Lobert focusing on Lobert's slow descent into the sex industry (more specifically prostitution) and even slower rise to help others liker herself. Lobert writes with clear, tasteful language. Her story captivates readers from beginning to end. 

A word of caution, however: Lobert testifies to her Charismatic beliefs (she has spoken in tongues, which critics could easily say was influenced by Lobert's self-admitted psychological condition) and Joyce Meyers played a major "mama" role in Lobert's conversion to Christianity. I found her associations interesting considering Lobert condemns materialism and teaches readers to submit in obedience to God, both teachings that I can agree with. 

Meyers comes from a background of sexual abuse and has a great deal of positive things to say about freedom from captivity. However, she is also associated with the Prosperity Gospel movement, and, to me at least, that is just a hop, skip and jump away from the even more blasphemous Word of Faith movement.

I can't judge Lobert, though. She has accomplished a great deal, and her love for Jesus and Scripture is apparent. Her book, itself, contains no explicit false teaching. But I cannot lie. I was taken aback at her admittances after being so fully invested in the book up to that point.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Review: NIV Proclamation Bible

For a Bible that claims to focus on making it easier to teach and proclaim God's Word, the NIV Proclamation Bible does not offer much. Book introductions are short and not at all unique. The essays at the beginning of the Bible are good reads about interpreting the Bible correctly, but would save space if expanded and put into their own book. I would much rather have shorter versions of these essays with practical examples throughout the text. Or perhaps the Bible could include sections that point out creeds and basic doctrines. Instead we get the typical concordance and cross references of select words. The one original element I found worthwhile was the inclusion of pointers to parallel passages. Such tools are easier to use online (ex: BibleHub.com). Also, I remain suspicious due to the inclusion of what appear to be several Catholic contributors/editors, although I found nothing of negative note in the sixty or seventy pages of essays.

*Disclaimer: I received this Bible in exchange for my honest review.

Nonfiction Review: A Glorious Dark by A.J. Swoboda

A.J. Swoboda has a relaxing, neighborly tone to his narrative that immediately endears him to his readers. In "A Glorious Dark," the author sets out to discuss the three days of Easter: The pain of Friday, the sadness of Saturday, and the hope of Sunday. Swoboda states that Christians should live in light of all three days, not just one or two.

What follows his introduction are short and easy-to-read thoughts on various topics. However, A.J. never addresses the abuses of these "days" in a specific manner, and his many stories and lessons are difficult to connect to each other and to the Friday, Saturday, Sunday outline of his book. That said, I did thoroughly enjoy reading "A Glorious Dark," much thanks to Swoboda's addicting writing style. Due to the scattered organization, I didn't take much away, but I do hope to read the book again some day for further takeaways.

*Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for my honest review.

Christian Nonfiction Review: Compassion Without Compromise

Compassion without compromise. It's an idea that I find difficult to implement. While moral lines are easy to find solid Biblical ground on, moral issues in the political arena come with less ease. In their book on homosexuality, Adam T. Barr and Ron Citlau provided some good Biblical arguments to influence my thinking on the purpose of marriage. But while I agree wholeheartedly with their main premise, I take issue with some of their book. I have yet to find a book on this issue that really addresses my questions on real-life application. So, don't let the title of this book fool you. It won't help much. But it will guide you a bit.

The authors set out definitions I would love to see expansion upon. Their answer to the question of whether or not a gay person can go to heaven was elusive and confusing. And their examples came from extreme negative backgrounds (i.e. drugs and bad relationships led to same-sex preference) that do not always apply to the LGBT community. They thus fail to answer how to respond to those who claim marriage is about "love" and should not be denied to faithful partners, no matter the sexual preference. I did, however, see plenty of compassion in the book, including a short bit on recognizing that all sinners can play the role of the good Samaritan.

*Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Nonfiction Review: 30 Events That Shaped The Church by Alton Gansky

Alton Gansky does a wonderful job of covering a lot of ground in a short space. His writing is easy to read, and he provides plenty of cultural context as he covers the "30 Events That Shaped The Church." Gansky starts with events found in Acts (which some may find slower reading) and moves on to cover everything from the various church councils to the Scopes Monkey Trial. I appreciated his inclusion of more unique events and groups. My one complaint: I felt the author was a bit partial to Catholicism. He includes events that took place after the church split, potentially giving modern Catholicism a place in the Church.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Nonfiction Review: The Bible's Answers to 100 of Life's Biggest Questions

I expected more from Norman Geisler. Although "The Bible's Answers to 100 of Life's Biggest Questions" is an easy read, laid out to include application and references, I found the book boring and full of answers I already knew (well, I did go to Bible college).

I'm not sure who Geisler and Jason Jumenez wrote this book for. Most Christians will know the basic answers to the questions presented, questions that at times seem more suited to setting the liberal Christian straight. And, really, the questions presented do not seem to match up with the book's title, they are so varied.

"Life" implies real-word, everyday, immediately-applies-to-me questions, but these questions vary from spiritual (what is Hell?) to philosophical (what is truth?). A few questions at the end of the book deal with politics and modern cultural issues, but they do not expand enough to answer my "life" questions.

So, maybe this book just needs a new title. Or perhaps it needs to be expanded into a reference book.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.